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Penny Dreadful Players shine in black hole comedy

I was lucky enough to catch a performance of Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things performed by the Penny Dreadful Players this past week. The play itself could be called a “black comedy,” though “black hole comedy” would possibly be a better description. It’s certainly funny and intriguing as you circle the inner mass of the thing; but once you approach the event horizon you might find yourself mighty disturbed by what you find within. Unsettling or not, though I thought the play was great.

The main character is Adam, a not so self-confident English major. His life is transformed when the graduate art student Evelyn enters his life. She is superbly assertive, and with her help Adam begins to change into a happier, more confident, and certainly more buffed kind of person. He also falls in love with Evelyn. And yet, if only because this is a play pre-occupied with art, we can assume there is more here than meets the eye.

The cast does a fine job of realizing the characters, and Carl Newman, who plays Adam (pictured above, on right), deserves special mention for his portrayal of the nerdy, too nice student. Kathryn Muck gives a forceful performance as the strong-willed artist, Evelyn (pictured above, on left). This was actually a tougher role than that of Adam, in some ways. I’m reluctant to reveal too much here, but I think you could say that Evelyn herself is a work of art — revealing that in just the right way takes real skill, something Kathryn Muck certainly has. The secondary roles of Phillip and Jenny were played by Tim Anderson and Alison Trouy, who both did a strong job of providing support for the primary dynamic between Adam and Evelyn. Craig Kurjanski handled the direction.

So who are these Penny Dreadful Players who provided such an interesting night of theater? I got a chance to talk to two members of the cast about the organization.

According to Trouy, the Penny Dreadful Players are the University of Illinois’ oldest student-run theater group. Everything is done by students, from lighting to publicity to directing, on a kind of rotational basis and with no faculty help or outside support, save for the pittance that any registered student organization gets. Somehow they manage to put on eight separate productions each year. These include not only the 10-minute play festival, but also the two-minute play festival.

Muck isn’t typical of the other players, as she is an acting major at the university. The university’s acting program is an exclusive one; this year it will have only thirteen graduating seniors. Those students will be the beneficiaries of a “senior showcase” in Chicago, to which agents and others in the theater world will be invited. Each participant is asked to bring along 75 head shots and résumés. And yet Kathryn, despite the vocational hoopla surrounding her graduation, couldn’t wait to be in this Penny Dreadful Players production and work alongside non-theater majors, partly because she’s loved this particular play since junior high school.

All in all, the performance was well worth attending and I would recommend checking out future performances by the Penny Dreadful Players. Sadly, The Shape of Things was only a two-night production lasting just this past weekend. Yet there is always next year, and if this production is any indication of the skill level of this student theater company, there should be equally good performances awaiting us in the fall.

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